Archives for posts with tag: natural horsemanship

Dr Helen Spence
March 2014

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Rosie wears a shower curtain as a hat, at liberty, in the field.

I just discovered I’d prepared this post earlier this year and not got round to uploading it! So here it is :-).

In the last decade the equestrian community’s understanding of learning theory and training terminology has improved enormously. When I first started out as a professional trainer over a decade ago, I found that few people had heard of ‘flooding’ as a training technique, let alone understood what it was, despite the fact that at the time it was widely utilised by a wide variety of trainers.

Nowadays, however, most people are aware of the term, and, more importantly, aware that it should be a last resort rather than a favoured approach. However, I often find that, although people are aware of the theory, in practice they are not always so good at recognising flooding when it is actually happening. In this post I will discuss what flooding actually is, what psychologists think about it, and how to recognise it.

Species specific defense reactions (ssdr) are innate escape avoidance responses made to aversive stimuli- in horses, these include freeze, flight, fight or faint. Horses are innately neophobic, which means that they naturally find novel objects/ situations frightening. Given freedom of choice and space, most horses will flee, even if only for a short distance.

Panksepp has suggested that the freeze response occurs at a slightly lower level of fear, however in a confined space/ when movement is constricted by ropes or reins, horses may not demonstrate flight or even an attempt to flee. Why might this be?

Exposing a horse to a novel stimulus, whether in hand or under saddle, in most cases (subject to history) will lead to stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the flight response: increase in heart rate, respiration rate, release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and corticosteroids in preparation for physical exertion and potential injury.

Given freedom of choice and adequate space the horse will flee to a safe distance and then recover to a parasympathetic state (‘rest and digest’)- think of a horse in a very large pasture, something startles them, they will spook and run, stop, turn, have a look, and once they are sure the threat is gone, they will return to grazing.

In some cases, once fear is gone, horses may exhibit curiosity in response to novelty. Panksepp would describe this as activation of the SEEKING circuitry, and the behaviour is characterized by interested approach. Please note that this occurs through choice and NOT under compulsion.

With repeated exposure to the novel stimulus, in this way, with sufficient respite between each exposure and no negative consequences, i.e. no pain or injury, the horse will ‘habituate’ and there will be a gradual diminishment of the flight response until it is not triggered at all. However, in some instances, the horse may instead become sensitised, and the ssdr may become stronger rather than weaker.

What happens if we attempt to make the horse ‘face his fear’? This often happens in the horseworld, whether intentional or not, because of our tendency to block their ability to perform the flight response.

For example, when out hacking, the horse freezes when they see a road sign. The normal response is to apply aversives in the form of pressure from the legs. This may in fact also be accompanied by increased pressure on the bit as the rider shortens the reins, anticipating a spook or a bolt.

If the horse continues to freeze, the aversives may be escalated, perhaps by increasing pressure from the legs, or with the addition of a smack from a whip or shouting from the rider (which the horse has learned to associate with another aversive stimulus such as the sting of the whip).

The horse is, in effect, caught between a rock and a hard place. If they turn away or back up, or even just stay where they are, they are experiencing increasingly aversive stimuli. But if they go forwards, they have to approach the frightening object, also an aversive stimulus. What does the horse do?

Inevitably, it comes down to which is more aversive- the object (the road sign in this instance) or the driving aids?

When riders are successful in ‘making’ horses approach in these situations, it is because the rider has managed to be the source of the more salient (more meaningful) aversive stimuli. With repetition, the horse learns that, when ridden, there is no point in executing the normal ssdr, escape avoidance doesn’t work.

This is what is known as learned helplessness. In future, even if the opportunity to escape is available, the horse will be unlikely to attempt to do so. It doesn’t mean that the horse is no longer frightened of the object, simply that they are more frightened of the rider and what the rider might do if they fail to pass.

Any scenario for dealing with a fear evoking stimulus in which the individual is exposed to it without the opportunity to escape is known as flooding.

Another example of flooding, frequently used in natural horsemanship training, and often incorrectly labeled as habituation or desensitisation, occurs when a horse is exposed to a novel stimulus while on line, or enclosed in an insufficient space such as a pen. The exposure to the stimulus triggers the flight response, but the horse is unable to run far enough away to settle and relax, due to the constraint of either the line or the pen. In addition, when on line, the horse runs into the pressure of the rope, and so experiences another aversive stimulus. This scenario is no different to that of the horse out on the hack. It may produce a horse that stands still and will appear to accept the novel stimulus (eg tarp, cracking whip, flag, stick and string or even a chainsaw) being moved around them and even touching them. However, careful examination of the body language will reveal a horse that is ‘tucked up’ (holding their breath) and carrying a lot of tension through the muscles, particularly obvious around the muzzle and eyes.

Emotions should always matter more than behaviour. Anyone can teach a horse to do something, but it takes skill and thoughtfulness to produce a horse that is genuinely relaxed and ‘happy’ with the process.

Flooding should be a tool of last resort, only to be brought out when there is no other option. It should not be used routinely for dealing with fears and phobias.

The best (and most ethical) way to do this is through a process known as systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. More on that another time!

Here is a video that illustrates the final stages of a systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning process. Many thanks to my clients Janet and Sally for allowing me to show this footage. http://youtu.be/qAlwc_uywMs

For a great free app that illustrates body language, go to https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=info.awinhub.HorseGrimacePainScale

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

Let’s get operating

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning and it’s relevance to horse training. More specifically, about negative and positive reinforcement. Lots of discussion on how much of traditional horse training, European and American, and natural horsemanship is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement, and how those that use the ‘clicker’ focus on positive reinforcement. Lots of kneejerk reaction to the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. Lots of confusion, because the end effect on behaviour is the same- reinforcement, or strengthening. Lots of articles written explaining what these terms mean, both in theory and in practice. Lots of division between trainers and justification for why they prefer one or the other as their focus in training.

A mechanistic approach

But for me, there is a big danger in focusing too much on operant conditioning. Yes, we most certainly need to understand it in order to train. BUT, focus too much on it, and training can become mechanical, treating the animal (or person) like a machine that is being programmed to follow instructions.

Why does that matter, you may ask? For many reasons (not least safety) we want our animals to be able to follow instructions. So do I…. But I don’t want to treat them like a machine. Like humans, there is growing scientific evidence that animals are sentient beings, that experience emotions just like ours.

We may not ever know what it is like ‘to be’ a horse, or a dog, or a fish, but the physiological evidence supports the idea that they can experience fear, joy, form attachments and grieve over losses. They share many of the same cognitive processes as we do. In fact, much of our understanding of human behaviour is based on animal studies. We are all animals!

A little detour through history

For a number of years now, I have been teaching my students and clients the importance of understanding classical (also known as Pavlovian, associative or respondent) conditioning. You may have heard the term ‘Pavlov’s dogs’ bandied about.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose studies involved the collection of saliva from dogs. Like all good scientists, he was an observant man. He was aware that saliva production is a reflex action, not under conscious control. The reflex is triggered by the presentation of food. So in order to collect the saliva, the dogs were given food. Pavlov began to notice that the dogs started salivating BEFORE the food was produced, when the lab assistants appeared.

How could this be? It couldn’t just be because the dogs ‘knew’ that food was coming- salivation is a reflex, not under conscious control, that should only occur in response to one stimulus- food. Yet a new stimulus, lab assistants, was provoking the reflex response.

Pavlov had discovered that it is possible, through ‘association’ to pair  the stimuli, so that a new, previously neutral, stimuli could lead to the response.

But what does that matter to us?!

Salivation isn’t the only reflex we have. There are all kinds, relating to self preservation and survival, including observable external reflexes such as the eye blink (to protect the eye from injury), choking, the knee jerk, and more interestingly for us, internal reflexes such as endocrine responses, such as would happen in response to rewarding or aversive experiences.

So this means that emotions are subject to the same possibilities as salivation. Emotional responses can become associated with stimuli that wouldn’t normally elicit them.

Time for some examples

Let’s imagine two horses, Misty and Thunder, and their owners, Bob and Jean. Bob and Jean are new to horses, have never seen horse training and have no preconceived ideas. They are each given a whistle, a bucket of carrots, and a lunge whip.

Bob takes Misty off into the paddock. He has this idea that he’d like to make Misty move, so he blows the whistle, but nothing happens. He blows it again, and decides this time to try cracking the lunge whip straight after. After just a few repetitions, Misty is cantering away from him as soon as he blows the whistle, and he doesn’t need to crack the lungewhip.

Meanwhile, Jean has taken Thunder off to a different paddock. She blows the whistle, with the idea that she’d like Thunder to move. Nothing happens. So she blows the whistle and picks up the bucket of carrots. After just a few repetitions, Thunder  is cantering towards her as soon as she blows the whistle, before she can lift the carrots.

After a day or two, Bob finds he is having problems catching Misty, yet Thunder gallops to the gate as soon as he sees Jean coming.

In this example, the whistle is the neutral stimulus that initially means nothing to the horses. By ‘associating’ the whistle with either a stimulus that provokes the flight response (fear/ avoidance reflex) OR with a stimulus that provokes salivation and the positive affect (emotions) that accompany eating, the whistle has taken on the properties of those stimuli. So the whistle has the power to make one horse feel good while the other feels fearful.

The whistle in Jean and Thunder’s case, has been associated with an APPETITIVE stimulus. In Bob and Misty’s case it has been associated with an AVERSIVE stimulus. And by default,  the sight of Bob makes Misty feel fearful and avoidant, while the opposite is true for Jean and Thunder.

Operant Conditioning,  Appetitives and Aversives

In Operant conditioning, appetitives (let’s call them the ‘Goodies’) and aversives (let’s call them the ‘Baddies’) are used to reinforce or punish behaviour. Reinforcement is the increase in frequency or intensity of a response. Punishment is the decrease in frequency or intensity of a response. The four quadrants of operant conditioning are normally taught with the emphasis on whether or not it is positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment.

My argument is that we are better to teach with the emphasis on whether or not it involves AVERSIVES (baddies) or APPETITIVES (goodies), because, both from a scientific perspective and from my years of observations of horses in training situations, this is what REALLY matters to the horse.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in an increase in the frequency or intensity of a response. From the perspective of behaviour, the end result is the same.

HOWEVER, positive reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘goody’ (an appetitive stimulus).

While negative reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘baddy’ (an aversive stimulus).

From an emotional perspective these are two very different experiences (as anyone who has ever played the training game at one of my clinics or talks will know!). Since the evidence suggests that horses have similar emotional responses to aversives and appetitives to us humans, then  we would do well to think carefully about this.

Let’s bring classical conditioning back into the equation

So we now know that horses have an emotional response to both appetitives and aversives. We also know that, through classical conditioning, these responses can become associated with all kinds of innocent stimuli!

For example, in a training paradigm that is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement IN OTHER WORDS AVERSIVES, it isn’t just the tools (e.g. the lunge whip, the reins, the schooling whip, the spurs, the legs) that are aversive. By association, saddle and bridle or even the presence of the trainer themselves has the potential to become a conditioned stimuli, i.e. one that, by association, provokes the same response.

So the trainer may, in essence, make the horse feel uncomfortable just by their presence.

Many trainers are lucky to avoid this, because they also are the source of appetitive experiences for their horses, such as feed, water, scratches, treats, turnout with friends.

Here’s the crux of the matter: your relationship with your horse is, in good part, determined by the balance of appetitives and aversives that you use with them on a daily basis. Like a set of scales, tip the balance too far one way, and the nature of the relationship can change from a happy one to an unhappy one. This is all because of classical conditioning.

It may seem like a rather simplistic way to view it, and I appreciate that there are other processes involved. But we cannot afford to dismiss this.

Why does it matter if my horse associates me with aversives more than appetitives?

It matters because, by their nature, aversives create avoidance. If you are too heavily associated with them, then your horse will want to avoid you. Horses avoid mainly by flight, but, if flight isn’t an option, fight can appear. Eventually, you may run the risk of learned helplessness and a ‘shut down’ horse. This is not the groundings of a safe, secure relationship.

In training,  we talk about ‘reinforcement history’. Reinforcement hostory refers to the weighting of goodies and baddies, I.e. aversives or appetitives associated with a stimulus or situation. Well, another word for reinforcement history could be ‘relationship’.

Whether you own the horse or not, whether you intend to keep them for life or sell them tomorrow, you have a responsibility, especially those of you working with youngsters.

You are creating that horse’s relationship with the human race as a whole. You can make it or break it. I always say my job, initially, when working with youngsters, is to help them fall in love with me. But my goal, is to help them fall in love with the human race.

A trusting, happy, gentle horse generally receives kinder treatment than one that is avoidant or defensive.

New evidence also suggests that the levels of fear, grief and distress experienced in childhood can have permanent damaging effects on the brain….. now that’s a whole other blog post!!

This is adapted from an article that I wrote for EquiAds Ireland Magazine,  2008.

I would say that the question that I get asked most frequently is “Do you do natural horsemanship?” closely followed by “Are you a horse whisperer?” 

These are probably two of the most difficult questions to answer, simply because everyone has a different definition of what natural horsemanship is, and what being a horse whisperer entails! You see I could answer yes and no to them both and be telling the truth. However, what I always say to people is that I don’t believe in the ‘method’ approach to horsemanship. And horse whispering may be a cosmic art, or it may simply be the ability to read and listen to what a horse is saying- this doesn’t necessarily need a sixth sense (although it helps sometimes!).

What I believe in is GOOD horsemanship.

I believe that this entails understanding a horse’s natural behaviour (i.e. that they are herd animals, prey animals and flight animals).

We need to understand that horses are all individuals and that temperament means that they each fall onto a different point on the spectrum of being herd, prey and flight animals (i.e. some are more sensitive,  more reactive or less confident than others).

We should understand how horses learn and how best to train them, taking into account these individual differences, and take on board the lessons learned from scientific research as well as practical experience.

We need to culitvate the awareness to listen to the horse and work out what they are trying to say with their behaviour (even if this means developing a bit of a sixth sense!).

We must develop ourselves.  What are the qualities of a good trainer and how do we achieve or cultivate these? How can we improve our self awareness and feel.?

It is essential that we understand how different management and training techniques affect each individual’s stress levels and learning abilities.

By knowing ourselves as individuals and recognising our strengths and weaknesses we can work on making life easier for the horse by improving ourselves as horse people, rather than making life easier for us with the use of gadgets and quick fixes.

Alois Podhajsky (former Director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna) said that “If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or chance and that it was practised long ago by the old masters”.

The more I experience on a practical level in my work, and the more I study the various ‘methods’ of horsemanship, from classical and natural right through, the more I agree with this statement.

There are so many similarities, and time and again you see that great horsemen use very similar techniques, though they might be described in different ways.

However, to me, the key is in understanding WHY these methods work. When you take the approach of studying WHY, you will find that you do not follow a ‘method’ but instead are on the road to GOOD horsemanship.

The most important quality of good horsemanship is that you have complete freedom to work with the horse in what is the most suitable way for that individual, given their temperament, history and your experience.

‘Methods’ often lead to people getting stuck in boxes. When you adhere to a ‘method’ set out by a particular horse person, you have to follow their recommendations and experiences. This can be incredibly useful in the early stages because you benefit from their experience and it can help to set a structure on how you work.

However there is no substitute for understanding WHY, and often these methods don’t teach the WHY, simply the HOW. In fact, as a psychologist and having studied equine behaviour and training on an academic as well as practical level I can tell you that often the WHY of these methods is very different to what some of these horse people say it is!

Following a method can work well enough until you meet a horse that doesn’t respond to this particular method in the expected manner. I have seen some well known and respected trainers get caught in this trap. The only way to truly assess what is the best way to work with a horse is to understand the WHY. After all, this famous quote says it all: “Art ends where violence begins. Violence begins where knowledge ends”.

For this reason, my driving passion in what I do is not to create a method that people follow- it is to give people the tools to understand WHY- so that they can study every horse person and every method, and pick and choose the best bits to incorporate into their own way of doing things.

For this same reason I like to teach people to understand themselves as individuals, their strengths and weaknesses and how these feed into their time spent with horses, so that they can play to their strengths and work on their weaknesses. 

I believe that understanding WHY is empowering and inspiring people to be the absolute best horse people they can be.

If you would like to learn a little more about this and about my philosophy, then visit my website www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk